For years, Amtrak has been getting delayed by freight traffic on the tracks where it runs, which in itself is ironic because those very same railroads prided themselves in timeliness when they operated passenger services. However, this isn’t just about Amtrak. Transportation agencies looking to add commuter service to relieve congestion on their crowded freeways, but often run into a railroad unwilling to allow those trains to operate over their tracks.
As such, perhaps it time for the government to own, maintain, and dispatch all the major rail corridors in the country, just like is done for major roads and airports that are also critical components of our transportation system. Could that be the answer to the problem of providing more efficient passenger service as well as just getting more passenger service period?
Several benefits could emerge from such a proposal. The first is clear: the ability to provide more passenger service, especially for commuter agencies. The second, though perhaps not quite at all as obvious, is that it would open up the rail industry to the winds of the great free market in a way not possible in the past. The third is that regions could provide the best rail infrastructure appropriate for their area. All of those are benefits that both SoCal at large and the IE would greatly appreciate.
Better passenger rail options
With the Inland region continuing to grow, our transportation agencies are running out of ways to keep people moving. Yet, while the area is crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of track and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money into projects that at least in part, benefit the railroads (aka grade separations, especially the Colton Crossing), a lack of capacity from the freight railroads means that the ability to further pursue rail options. For example, RCTC is looking to provide passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley region and is interested in making good use of the imminent Perris Valley Line by offering more connections. However, that would require operating on either BNSF’s or Union Pacific’s tracks, something which UP is not known for being extremely open to and BNSF is not particularly famous for either. Other projects around the IE would also greatly benefit from the ability to better operate over the regions rails. Proposals to provide train service to destinations such as Ontario International Airport, the High Desert, the Temecula Valley, and other points in the area all continue to run into the same problem.
More competition among, less regulation of carriers
New ownership can also lead to increased competition among carriers. As it is, many railroads have varying agreements for ‘trackage’ and ‘haulage’ rights on each others’ lines. With a single owner entity in charge of the rails themselves, every railroad would in effect have trackage rights everywhere and the race would be on. There would be direct competition among the carriers because they would all have the option to serve all customers. Such a move could also even spur entrepreneurship in the sector as a startup railroad would no longer have to try to find a right-of-way to buy and refurbish or go through the arduous process of establishing an entirely new one, one that is perhaps right next to an existing line. Additionally, it could greatly reduce or completely eliminate the need for the Surface Transportation Board to set rates for some services as they do now.
The ability for regions to provide the right rail infrastructure for their area is another huge area of opportunity and one that would be exceptionally beneficial to SoCal and the IE. In addition to the aforementioned congestion benefits that could come from increased passenger operations, this area is the home to the worst air quality in the nation and the residents of the IE and the LA Basin have suffered the ill effects of bad air for decades. While some of it may certainly be due to China, most of it is homegrown, with transportation accounting for a significant source of that pollution. Improvements are occurring, but a lot more needs to be done to meet emissions targets that are quickly approaching. While certainly not the only strategy necessary, one large area of opportunity rests in a reduction in use of diesel locomotives, especially in the LA Basin area, by way of electrification. Currently, the major freight railroads in the region (BNSF and UPRR) are not extremely interested in paying to electrify a small portion of their extensive national networks. However, it could be accomplished on the local scale by transportation commissions or MPOs such as SCAG.
Sooner = better
There’s no time to waste, tomorrow beckons. As it is, billions of dollars are to be poured into the rail network of this country over the next couple decades, with a significant amount coming from government already. While some of the proposal will certainly be quite controversial and require lots of lawyers in long meetings, the end result would be a system that is optimal for industry, customers, and purposes of the public good. As such, the process should begin as soon as possible so that those can be realized in a reasonable amount of time. We owe it to ourselves to do so.